Aaron Freeman has been the frontman for Ween since he was a teenager. He and Mickey Melchiondo met in eighth grade, and started recording together in high school; they put out their first studio album in 1990, the year they both turned 20. Two years later, “Push th’ Little Daisies” became an unlikely radio favorite. Since then the band has recorded several more critically acclaimed albums and maintained a devoted fan base willing to follow the duo wherever they go musically—from the Nashville sound of 12 Golden Country Greats to the psychedelic prog-rock stylings of The Mollusk.
Now, for his first solo outing, Freeman has taken another unexpected musical turn: He has recorded an entire album of songs by Rod McKuen. McKuen, a poet and artist as well as a musician, was an enormously popular figure in the late 1960s and early 1970s—Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson each recorded entire albums of McKuen songs—but has become a somewhat forgotten figure. McKuen's heart-on-his-sleeve emotionalism struck me as an odd fit for Freeman at first; to my surprise, it suits him beautifully. You can listen to the first track of Marvelous Clouds, which comes out May 8, below.
Brow Beat talked to Freeman about why McKuen’s songs were perfect not only for his first solo record, but for helping Freeman find his way on the road to recovery after years of drug and alcohol addiction.
Slate: I have to admit that the name Rod McKuen was new to me, though, after I looked him up, I realized that of course I’d heard his songs before—done by Johnny Cash and what have you. He’s an enormously popular figure, I had no idea.
Freeman: Yeah. I didn’t either.
Slate: Until when? When did you first learn about him?
Freeman: Close to a year ago. I was on tour in L.A. and I ran into Ben Vaughn, who produced the record, and who’s a good friend of mine. We got to talking about how I wanted to do a solo project of some sort. And he had this idea. He’s a huge fan of Rod McKuen. And he told me about this catalog of great poems and songs and all kinds of things that it seems like no one’s ever really heard of. We hung out, listened to a lot of Rod McKuen, and the next thing I know, we’re working on this record together.
Ben had all the songs he wanted to do for the record already, so he would send me one of the songs. I’m not a good enough musician to play a lot of the changes and the chords that these songs have, so I sort of ran them through my filter, and produced these demos which turned out to be a little different than the originals—but in a good way. So I’d blast him back my interpretations of these Rod McKuen songs, and it would change the songs up just enough to make them interesting.
Slate: Did you ever disagree and say, “I want to do this one instead?”
Freeman: No, I really loved every song he picked. Though I actually picked the song “Pushing the Clouds Away” myself. As we were working on the record, I was listening to more Rod McKuen and getting really immersed in his lyrics. If you look on iTunes or Amazon you’ll find the records he did with the San Sebastian Strings, and, on one of those records, there’s “Pushing the Clouds Away,” which just really floored me.
Slate: I was really struck by that one. McKuen’s songs generally seem fairly light and upbeat and cheerful, or at least that’s how they seemed to me on first listen. That one is largely that way—until the end, where there’s this move toward something a little more dark or searching. It ends with the words, “Help me, please.” Is that partly what struck you about it?
Freeman: Yeah, yeah. I love that from any musician, or any artist—people who can keep it seemingly simple and light and appealing to a lot of people, but as you listen more you realize they’re trying to convey a deeper emotion—or pain, really, because that’s life. And McKuen’s a master at that. Take “Seasons in the Sun.” That’s one of the most depressing songs ever written, if you really sit and listen to the lyrics. It’s devastating. It’s about a guy on his deathbed. So he’s really got this dark, lonely thing going on with his music that I just love.
Slate: That’s something some critics seem to have missed—or maybe they would simply disagree. There’s this take on McKuen that he’s light and superficial and schmaltzy.
Freeman: Yeah, you know, you can make a lot of parallels to Ween that way. Maybe that’s why I like him. People see us as this crazy, quacky duo. And yeah, if you listen to a couple of our songs you get that impression. If you actually listen to a couple of our records, it gets pretty fucked up, and it’s not so quirky. I drew a lot of parallels with Rod that way. I love music like that. It’s like Brian Wilson. Or any great artist, really.
Slate: Have you spoken to McKuen?
Freeman: No, but I’m going out to L.A. probably in about a month, and I’m gonna hang out with him. Which is pretty cool, because he’s really reclusive now. But I’m very pleased that he’s a huge fan of the record.
Slate: I’m not surprised. Your interpretation of the songs seemed very in keeping with their spirit—and you really put the songs themselves at the forefront; they’re not buried in sonic experimentation or anything.
Freeman: That was the main thing. It was a real exercise in keeping true to the genuine love for his music and wanting to portray that. For example, sometimes I’ll affect my voice, and we made sure that we put a stop to that—as soon as I caught myself unconsciously doing that, which I do at this point. So what you hear on the record is how I really sing, and that was a great exercise for me to do personally.
Slate: Was there something about his songs that allowed you to do that more easily than you could with your own writing?
Freeman: Yeah, it was the perfect exercise in that way. The next Aaron Freeman thing I do will be my own music. But, I gotta admit, when you do your first soiree on your own... I mean, I was nervous. So this was the perfect vessel. There’s something about his phrasing, and how he sings, that I felt very comfortable with. I’ve sung other people’s stuff, or tried to sing with other people, and their rhythm has been completely foreign to me. Not that it’s bad; it’s just different. But for some reason, Rod’s stuff felt very comfortable.
Slate: Are you back to writing for Ween as well?
Freeman: Yeah, the Ween door is always open. But I think we both need our own time to do our own stuff. I mean, we’ve been together since we were 15, so...
Slate: That’s amazing.
Freeman: Yeah, it is amazing. It’s like 20-something years. We love each other to death, but it feels real good, I think, for both of us to be doing different stuff. Mickey is pursuing his love of fishing… He’ll come back to music, I’m sure, but right now he’s just, like, on the boat, man. He’s loving it.
Slate: Will you take the McKuen record on the road at all?
Freeman: That’s the plan. We’re gonna assemble a band. I want to model it on Leonard Cohen: Live in London. I love the feel of his band on that record, and how he goes in and out of poetry and this and that. So I’m gonna use that as a template. We’ll probably do residencies—hit a city and stay for like two or three nights.
Slate: That seems very in keeping spirit with the spirit of those songs and that whole era of the early ’70s.
Freeman: Exactly. We’re basically going to score the show, that’s how I envision it. If you hear a lot of the Rod McKuen records, when he does live stuff, they do that, too. In between songs they’ll play a bar or two orchestrated from, say, the first song, and it will all blend in together. I’m gonna be working pretty hard with a group of musicians. I’m hoping that we can take this on the road late spring or early summer.
Slate: There was concern among fans of yours about some performances last year. I don’t know if you saw this outpouring of worry online.
Freeman: About the drugs and alcohol, you mean?
Slate: Yeah. Is it all right if I ask you how things are going?
Freeman: It’s absolutely fine. If you want to know the truth, I’ve been gone for awhile. I’ve disappeared, and I’ve been in recovery now for about two or three months. I’m tackling it every day. I’m in Arizona right now, actually. I’m living and breathing recovery, and it’s really good. That’s the first and foremost thing in my life, and it’s going really well.
Slate: I imagine these McKuen songs are good ones to be singing as you’re working through that. They don’t shy away from the darkness, like you said, but there’s an optimism to them, and they’re very sincere and straightforwardly emotional.
Freeman: Yeah, it’s the perfect thing to be doing. I’m gonna be in Arizona probably for another month, month and a half, and I’ll have a good chunk of both time and healing under my belt. The songs are perfect in that way. It will be a good environment to be creative, and keep on top of it. But yeah, I’m definitely an alcoholic and a drug addict, and I have been for a long time. It’s something I’ve embraced, and fortunately I think I’m old enough now where I can get out of it. Everybody has their time. Five years ago, 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have, but at this point of my life I’m ready, and I have taken the time to work on myself in that way. And I hope to give it back, you know. I hope to give it back in the future.
Slate: Do you think at all about how the fans will respond? The mythology of Ween was certainly wrapped up in drugs and experimentation. Is that something you’ve wrestled with as you’ve been going through this?
Freeman: Honestly, I think it’s something that I’ve just let be an excuse to indulge my thing. A lot of our fans have grown up and have families. People, who were doing whippets and Scotchgard in the parking lot have now grown up and have kids—so, you know, those days are kind of over, whether I want to still live in that world of my own making or not is up to me. And I’ve let myself be in that world. But personally, I don’t think any of our fans would have one bit of a problem for one second with me being fully sober and aware.
Slate: I wouldn’t think so, either. What really struck me in reading about the fan response to the shows from last year was the real concern for you.
Freeman: Yeah, that concern is going to be there for a long time. But there are a lot of options when I’m touring that I never realized I had, to help keep me in the right frame of mind.
Slate: What kind of options?
Freeman: There are people who will escort you, who stay with you on the road. You get a hotel suite with two rooms in it, and you can hire a guy who’s basically a “sober ninja,” you know, who just watches you. And that’s what I did in Denver before I went into rehab. I went to rehab after our three shows in Denver, and I’ve basically been in rehab ever since. And this guy was great. They make sure you sign a bunch of waivers so they can, you know, just nail you to the floor if need be—fortunately, I didn’t need to be. So I’ll be doing that for the rest of my days on the road. And you know, there’s a lot of precautions, a lot of things you can do to help yourself out in that way. The Vancouver show was just terrible. But I see that as a thing that helped me get to where I’m at now...
And I have to mention my beautiful supporting wife. She’s really, really, helped me a lot, and has really supported me with this. So she’s, you know, the shining star. And I’m very grateful to Ben Vaughn. You know, we decided to do this record after that Vancouver show. I was kind of working my way down the west coast to L.A., and I was very upset. And Ben is such a great friend; he’s very wise. We got to talking and he gave me this idea. It was the perfect thing.
Interview has been condensed and edited.